In the nineteenth century, many European countries witnessed an upsurge in illegitimacy ratios. It has generally been interpreted as a result of weakening social control due to industrialization, urbanization, and migration. Although children born out of wedlock were mainly an urban phenomenon, high ratios also could be found in rural ... (Show more)
In the nineteenth century, many European countries witnessed an upsurge in illegitimacy ratios. It has generally been interpreted as a result of weakening social control due to industrialization, urbanization, and migration. Although children born out of wedlock were mainly an urban phenomenon, high ratios also could be found in rural regions. Recent research on out-of-wedlock births has explored the reasons behind the occurrence of illegitimate births from an individual-level perspective and the direct consequences of the birth. This paper considers both questions by using individual level data from two economically advanced parishes in post-emancipation rural Estonia from 1834-91.
The illegitimacy ratio in Estonia rose from c. 3-4% in the 1840s to c. 7-8%, in the 1880s-1890s. In the area under study, the ratio increased from 2.8 to 4.6. (Helme) and from 1.9 to 6.9 (Holstre). The low illegitimacy rate in comparison with other parts of (non-Catholic and non-Orthodox) Europe is astonishing given that the mean age at marriage for women in Estonia was close to the figures in North-Western Europe and Estonian villagers, as has been suggested by folklorists, considered premarital intercourse normal.
Data from Helme and Holstre indicates that less than 5% of unwed mothers were under 20. The average age of mothers delivering a baby outside marriage was 27. Therefore, illegitimate births seem to result more from singlehood than from ‘merry life’ as young adults. Over half of women bearing illegitimate children went on to marry but in most cases it happened only years after the birth of the illegitimate child and very seldom they married the child’s father. Unwed mothers had the right to claim maintenance from the putative father of the child, but the proportion of fathers acknowledging paternity was small. Most of the unwed mothers originated from landless groups.
Illegitimate infants in past times are generally considered to have been among the most vulnerable population groups. In our case-study, illegitimate babies were around twice more likely to be born dead than those born to an official union. In Holstre, illegitimate live-born children were around twice as likely to have died before the age of one year than those born to married parents from 1834 to 1869 but this difference disappears from 1870-91 (IMR for both groups 15.9%). In Helme, the difference was negligent from 1834-69 (11%) but roughly doubles from 1870. In Holstre, differences in mortality according to legal status can be observed also after children had reached age one: 22.7% of illegitimate children who survived the first year of life in 1834-69 died between ages one and five and in 1870-91 10.5% (on average, 3.6 and 2.4% respectively). It will be discussed what role grandparents played in determining whether illegitimate infants and young children died or survived.
The outlook for the unwed mother and her illegitimate child was bleak but improved clearly from the 1870s onwards. The experience of rural Estonia suggests that bearing children outside marriage was mostly a form of deviancy rather as part of normal sexual culture. (Show less)